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Debra Hamel is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


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Toussaint, Jean-Philippe: Television

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3 stars

The protagonist and narrator of Jean-Philippe Toussaint's novella has decided to stop watching TV. On sabbatical in Berlin, and living off of grant money, Toussaint's unnamed antihero is supposed to be working on a book--a monograph having to do with Titian and Charles V. Television, distracting as it is, must go. But the narrator's continued interest in TV, whatever his noble intentions, runs through the rest of the narrative. Still, the book isn't so much about television and its pull as it about the protagonist's continued procrastination, even with the TV off, his literary paralysis. In the course of the summer, plagued by doubts about whether to refer to the painter as "Titian" or "le Titain" in his book, he manages to write only two words: "When Musset." He is inordinately pleased with them.

Toussaint's book is amusing at times, as when the writer runs into the man who gave him his grant money at a nude beach. And Toussaint writes very well about his narrator's failure to write:

"Sitting on the couch in the living room, I then began to muse on the little problem that had been occupying my mind on and off for what would soon be three weeks, which is to say the name I should give Titian in my monograph, and I tried to console myself for not having made a definitive choice by observing that, paradoxically, what would truly have justified the accusation of avoiding my work and enjoying an easy summer in Berlin would surely have been settling straight down to write without fully considering the question of the artist's name, and that in fact I had every reason to be pleased with myself for having, in a spirit of scholarly scrupulousness and perfectionism, maintained myself for nearly three weeks in a state of perpetual readiness to write, without taking the easy way out and actually doing so."

The best and funniest part of the book by far, however, is the drama connected with the narrator's agreement to water his neighbors' plants while they're away, a task he sees to with the assiduity he applies to his writing.

But for the most part the book drags, with a great number of episodes that don't seem to have much point to them except to underline that the narrator still isn't writing (e.g., the flight around Berlin, the trip to a museum). The book is short, but I found myself wishing it was shorter, or that a larger percentage of it had to do with watering plants.

Comments

1.

It sounds somewhat like Knut Hamsun's "Hunger." Have you read that? Is it like it?

2.

No, I haven't! But it's been on my bookshelves for probably close to 20 years--though it's possible I got rid of it in my recent purge. Interesting comparison. I read something else of Hamsun's a long time ago. I have a vague memory of the main character walking around a lot and digging a well for someone.

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